PHILIPPE RAHM’S HOLISTIC DECOR IN THE AGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Philippe Rahm wants us to rethink how we create interior spaces in an era where, unprecedentedly, humans are altering the actual geology of our planet. “Climate change is forcing us to rethink architecture radically,” he says. “We must shift our focus away from a purely functional approach towards one that is more sensitive and attentive to the invisible, climate-related aspects of space.” In his current installation at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Paris-based architect invites visitors to recognize the urgency of global warming through interior design that takes climate, atmosphere, and physiology as the primary factor in material selection. He encourages us to think about the climatic effects of surfaces and how they affect our comfort in a space: whether they make us feel warmer, cooler, or somewhere in between. Rahm is known for forming a new architectural language that dictates we should no longer build spaces, but rather create temperatures and atmospheres. His installation Digestible Gulf Stream during the 2008 Venice Biennale, for example, was a large-scale prototype for a space where architecture regulated and brought order to energy flows complete with naked human inhabitants to demonstrate the levels of thermal comfort. And currently under construction in Taichung, Taiwan, is Rahm’s 70-hectare Jade Eco Park, which allows visitors to sit in a space where they tepefy in tropic humidity, or walk through another where they feel the wind on their bare skin. (There is always a cheekiness to his hard-hitting environmental exploration.)
Since humans started burning coal and fossil fuels to power industry in the 1830s, global warming has significantly impacted terrestrial ecosystems. These changes are not just local and superficial: they are global and geological. As a result, according to archeologists, the Earth has now entered the Anthropocene Era where geological changes are no longer natural, but instead human-inflicted, due to reckless behaviors like burning fossil energies, deforestation, and other industrial processes. Titled Anthropocene Style, Rahm’s exhibition at SFAI isn’t subtle about its purpose or mission. Based on the conviction that nearly 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by heating and air conditioning, water heating, and construction processes, Rahm offers a bigger-picture question around aesthetic choice: what is the criteria for choosing one material over another? In the context of accelerating climate change, Rahm argues that properties such as effusivity (the rate at which materials absorb heat), emissivity (the rate at which they emit heat), conductivity, and reflectivity should guide these decisions.
The essential and original mission of decorative and interior design — a set of ways to improve the comfort and lighting of cold and dark interiors — was lost to the inventions of central heating, electric lighting and air conditioning. “Temperature has always dictated how we treat interiors,” explains Rahm. “In the Middle Ages, tapestries were used because the stone walls were cold and uninsulated; you would reduce radiation by placing wool tapestries around you. It was the same for the carpet: you create a thermal layer of insulation.” Rahm agues that the advent of built-in heating and cooling systems encouraged designers to move away from heavy ornamentation, ushering in the spare, minimalist “white cube” style of the later 20th century. “Modern architecture, which in its sparseness often relies on artificial heating and cooling systems, uses precious resources and produce harmful elements and has hastened global warming. This is totally unsustainable for the future. We now stand at a moment in time where environmental awareness allows us to dictate a new interior design style, reviving a decorative language and rejecting the minimalism of the 20th century.”
Rahm’s interior design “fabrics” — emissive tapestries, effusive carpeting, and spectral light — are chosen with decoration in mind, but also for their interaction with human body heat. Three “rooms,” or test sites, have been constructed in the soaring volume of the SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries, emphasizing different climatic environments. The loftier part of the space, where convection currents are most likely to manifest a cooler space (much like the volume of a cathedral or great hall), has been bathed in red light which is absorbed as heat by the body; wool carpet underfoot brings a sense of warmth to the person touching it, and aluminum tapestry walls prevent heat-loss and radiate our own body heat back to the skin in essence creating warmth and snug in an otherwise frigid space. At the opposite end of the room, the lower ceiling of the space represents how we should approach edifices in warmer climates. Blue light — which the body does not absorb as heat — has been employed alongside rubber tapestry walls, which completely absorb heat emitted by the body, cooling the self. An aluminum carpet brings a sense of cold to the human body — the effusivity of the material literally “sucks” heat away from us. “I was thinking that we need to challenge the materiality of the building,” Rahm explains. “What is a wall really made of? Or the ground? Understanding that there are narratives attached to certain materials, the Anthropocene Style suggests that we rethink the intelligence of materials and choose elements based on physical behaviors — such as optical, thermal, and acoustic absorption.”